Power  /  Book Review

They Wanted to Remake the World; Instead We Got President Trump

Andrew Bacevich makes the case that America’s elites wasted the promise of the post-Cold War era.

The Cold War mind-set, in Bacevich’s telling, came with certain disciplining features. Because the Soviet Union was always out there, doing its own thing, American statesmen could not be as reckless as they might otherwise have been, and American citizens were forced to live up to some modicum of their own oft-stated virtues. But the Cold War also constituted a “tragedy of towering proportions,” Bacevich writes, 40-plus years of “folly and waste,” all to create the greatest buildup of lethal force in human history. The proper response, when it came to an end, would have been “reflection, remorse, repentance, even restitution.” Instead, an “intoxicated elite” rushed ahead into the 21st century, giddy with its own power and wealth, sure that it could now, at last, remake the world in America’s image.

What emerged from this enthusiasm, Bacevich argues, was a dreary new post-Cold War consensus, built around a commitment to neoliberal economics at home and abroad, backed by American military supremacy and an increasingly powerful White House. Technology was supposed to bring it all together, as smart bombs and drones replaced messy human warfare. And everyone was supposed to win: America, the world, the poor, the rich, the cause of human freedom. Bacevich likens the late 1990s to the moment when Dorothy and her “Wizard of Oz” companions arrive at the yellow brick road, convinced that their troubles have come to an end. We all know how well that turned out.

Bacevich’s emphasis on the past 30 years as a period of consensus departs from an arguably more popular and widespread narrative, in which American politics during that time fell victim to polarization and hyper-partisanship, and to entrenched conflicts over race, culture and civil rights. “The Age of Illusions” does not devote much time to differences of opinion within the so-called elite, though Bacevich defines that category widely, including NPR listeners and Washington Post subscribers (that may be you, dear reader), along with “Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Israel lobby, the National Rifle Association, the national security apparatus, and megadonors like the Koch brothers.” He sees today’s more meaningful divide as one of class, with poor and working-class Americans fighting America’s wars as supposed volunteers, while the “disturbingly inbred and self-perpetuating political elite” who sent them off to battle remains insulated from the consequences of its own decisions.